It’s been 50 years since Neil Armstrong uttered perhaps the most famous words spoken in space: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Trivia tidbit: Armstrong claimed he said “one small step for a man.”
In those five decades, space exploration has become a much more diverse line of work. But how much more?
In celebration of International Women’s Month, we took a look at how gender and racial diversity in space exploration have changed over the years.
The Most and Least Diverse Space Agencies
Sadly, no space agency has an equal number of women to men or people of color to white people. But some are getting closer to equality.
Centre National D’études Spatial (CNES), France
- 14% women
- 14% people of color
The first French woman in space, Claudie Haigneré, was also the European Space Agency’s first female astronaut.
Her first mission was in 1993, where she served as a backup crew member alongside her future husband, Jean-Pierre Haigneré. Can we call that love at first spaceflight? (P.S. Both Claudie and Jean-Pierre have an asteroid, Haigneré, named after them.)
China National Space Administration (CNSA), China
- 18% women
- 91% people of color
China’s space agency launched the space career of Liu Yang, the country’s first female astronaut—and also a woman of color.
Coincidentally, Liu’s mission launched on June 16, 2012, which was exactly 49 years to the day that the very first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union, traveled to space. Talk about paying honors.
European Space Agency (ESA)
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK
- 11% women
- 8% people of color
Two women from the ESA have exited Earth’s atmosphere and launched into space: Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy and Helen Sharman of the UK.
At 199 days, 16 hours in space, Cristoforetti currently holds the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight of a European astronaut. She’s also the first Italian woman in space—and the first to brew an espresso miles above our home planet.
Sharman’s expedition to space was part luck, part smarts. She was selected to be the first British astronaut (yes, the first out of the whole country) after responding to a radio advertisement. The selection process noted her PhD in chemistry and selected her over almost 13,000 other applicants. It’s no surprise she’s also a member of the Order of the British Empire.
What does “diverse” mean to you?
Diversity can mean many things to many people. For our analysis of how space-travel diversity has evolved over time, we used the US Office of Management and Budget’s race and ethnicity categories. We then focused on women and people of color (non-white) as two areas of diversity.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Administration (JAXA), Japan
- 25% women
- 100% people of color
Japan selected its first female astronaut, Chiaki Mukai, in 1984. She’s logged more than 566 hours in space after two missions—the First Material Processing Test mission and the Neurolab mission.
Mukai is the first Japanese citizen to reach space twice, and she paved the way for Japan’s second female astronaut, Naoko Yamazaki. Yamazaki traveled aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 2010.
Roscosmos, formerly known as the Russian Aviation Space Agency (RSA), Russia
- 5% women
- 9% people of color
It’s no surprise to many of us that Russia’s astronauts achieved a multitude of firsts in space. Many of these include astronauts from other communist countries, like Vietnam and Cuba. This reflects the Soviet Union’s interest in space travel and its influence on other communist countries back in the days of the Cold War.
Remember history class? The Soviet Union collapsed on December 26, 1991. But Russia has continued its tradition of space exploration by teaming up with other countries on the International Space Station program.
Perhaps the most famous Soviet astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova was the very first female in space. She piloted the Vostok 6 spacecraft in 1963.
Other notably diverse Russian and Soviet astronauts include Yi So-yeon, the first Korean astronaut (and first female Korean astronaut); Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space (and first woman to self-fund her flight to the International Space Station); Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, the first Cuban citizen and first person of African heritage in space; Phạm Tuân, the first Vietnamese citizen and first Asian in space; and Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa, the first Mongolian in space.
How NASA’s Diversity Compares
- 15% women
- 9% people of color
NASA’s first six female astronauts joined the agency in 1978. It was this same year that the first people of color were selected as astronauts. Two months after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, Colonel Guy Bluford, Jr. became the first African-American in space.
It would take four more years for the first African-American woman to be accepted to NASA’s astronaut training program in 1987. Mae C. Jemison became the first female African-American in space in 1992.
What about LGBTQ+ diversity in space?
Sadly, there’s not much information on whether any space agencies include LGBTQ+ astronauts—possibly because the publicity could damage their careers. As of now, NASA’s own Sally Ride is the first and only known LGBTQ+ astronaut. She kept this a secret until her death in 2012.
Space Traveler Diversity by Decade
Over the decades, we’ve seen diversity in space exploration really take off.
There are more people of color in space than ever before.
Space flight in the 1970s started out with people of color making up only 8% of active astronauts. Fast forward to the 2010s, where we see people of color making up 24% of space travelers.
Women have gained equal footing in space.
Similar to people of color, women made up only 8% of active astronauts in the 1970s. Their numbers steadily rose over the decades until a huge number of women were selected as astronauts in the 2010s, bringing the number of female astronauts in the world to 32%.
As we see more privately owned space agencies pop up, we hope the number of women and people of color in space to keep rising. And don’t forget about space tourism agencies like Virgin Galactic, which sent its first female flyer, Beth Moses, into space on February 22, 2019.
Decades later, NASA’s diversity soars.
Today, NASA is striving to become more diverse: its 2013 astronaut class included equal numbers of men and women. To top that off, women now make up 34% of the agency’s active astronauts and people of color make up 24% of its active astronauts. (If you look at the 2010s decade, women make up 42% and people of color make up 21% of its active astronauts.)
NASA is also planning the first all-female spacewalk on March 29, 2019. If all goes as planned, Anne McClain and Christina Koch will take a “walk” outside the International Space Station to replace batteries on the solar arrays.
And just recently NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated the first person on Mars would likely be a woman. How’s that for a first?
Update: March 26, 2019
We’re pretty bummed to hear NASA canceled its all-women spacewalk. The spacewalk was scheduled for Friday, March 29, but both Ann McClain and Christina Koch need medium-size spacesuits and only one is available at the International Space Station. Is anyone else having flashbacks to digging through the racks at the mall to find your size?
The race to make space more diverse isn’t over.
While great leaps are being made to make space exploration a diverse occupation that represents all Earth’s people, we still have a ways to go.
At 88% of total space travelers white astronauts make up the majority of people in space from all space agencies over all decades. Asians account for 7% of all astronauts, and African-Americans and Hispanics account for 2% each.
But what about North Africans, Hawaiians, Native Americans, and people of Middle Eastern descent? Each one accounts for less than 1% of space travelers.
How diverse is NASA?
If we look at NASA specifically, its diversity in space still has light years to go in terms of equality.
White people still make up 91% of all NASA’s astronauts, while African-Americans make up 4%, Asians make up 3%, and Hispanics make up 2%. Hawaiians and Native Americans make up less than 1% each—and there’s no representation of North Africans or those of Middle Eastern descent in NASA’s astronaut program at all.
Here’s hoping those numbers continue to even out across all space agencies and we see more astronauts from different races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations headed to the stars in the future.
How’d we come up with these intergalactic diversity trends? First, we scoured multiple lists of the more than 600 astronauts selected for space missions over the past seven decades.
Then we identified where, when, and how space agencies across the globe began diversifying space travel by comparing data on race, ethnicity, and gender using the US Office of Management and Budget’s race and ethnicity categories.
After that, we brought all the data together to identify which agencies have been the most diverse, how diversity has changed over the decades, and where diversity in space looks to be headed in the future.